Priceline Australia letter writers who say they faced racism and discrimination

(L-R) Mekdes, Lwam, Adiam (a friend who isn't a part of the letter) Sara, Helina Mengistu, Hiwot Birhane, and Gabby. Hiwan is not pictured.

photo: Photo courtesy Helina Mengistu

Seven Black women say they were racially profiled at a drugstore in Melbourne, Australia — and they’re not backing down.

In a two-page letter posted to Facebook and Twitter on October 3, the women, who are all between the ages of 18 and 20, wrote that they were discriminated against at Priceline — an Australia-based makeup and drugstore chain — on Saturday, September 17.

According to the letter, the women heard a call for "extra security" when they walked in, and had their bags checked by security while leaving. They noted that three non-Black women weren't searched as they left the store.

When they asked Marie, the store's acting manager, why other patrons weren't searched, they were told that she "knew" the women who left. Marie also threatened to call more security.

After the women tweeted about their experience to the Priceline Twitter account and made calls to the head office, they were contacted by Rochelle, the regional manager. 

The women claim that Rochelle told Hiwot Birhane, a 19-year-old international development student who accompanied the women to the store, that she spoke to Marie and the owner of the Priceline location. Rochelle said the non-white women who weren't checked were part of central management.

The women wanted access to security footage from the incident, but Rochelle refused to do so. 

Rochelle also refuted the insinuation that Priceline is racist since the chain has diversity in its models and staff. She also said it's unfair to call Marie racist because she works with refugees. 

Helina Mengistu, an 18-year-old digital media student, and Hiwot Birhane spoke to Revelist about the incident. Mengistu is also one of the women searched by security.

Mengistu told Revelist that this wasn't the first time Priceline discriminated against her.  

"As soon as I heard the call I was like, 'Lol, they're probably calling it on us,' since the store was almost empty. You kind of have to laugh at these things to keep from crying," Mengistu said. "Priceline is always like this every time I walk in, regardless of the location, it's the same treatment…Just being followed by their employees."

Mengistu said she noticed security skip two white women and one Asian woman for bag checks, but then search a Black woman who had just made a purchase.

When they were searched, Birhane asked Marie why the non-Black women weren't. Mengistu said Marie asked why the women were watching her.

Mengistu said that after Birhane got off the phone with Rochelle, they immediately started working on the letter.

"The whole process from beginning to end was just a whole lot of gaslighting. What really triggered the letter was Rochelle's response ultimately — they felt like they could patronize and gaslight me and my friends after the fact and get away with it," Mengistu said. "We were shaken and hurt and we felt disempowered. Like the only reason why Priceline could talk down to us was because nobody cared about us."

Mengistu said the response to the letter has been overwhelmingly kind, which surprised her.

According to Mengistu, race politics in Australia are "dated." Talking about race is taboo, so racism often runs unchecked.

"Almost every week there's a new blackface incident. Not that recently there was a panel on TV of people explicitly discussing whether n***** is okay to use," Mengistu said. "There's a lot of frustration living here as a Black girl. We feel alienated as a people, there's not many black people here so it often feels isolated."

Last year, six Black teenagers were asked to leave an Apple Store located in the same shopping center because an employee thought "they might steal something." Apple CEO Tim Cook replied with a statement days later, writing, "Apple is open."

On the viral Facebook and Twitter posts, patrons and former employees of Priceline have also shared their experiences of racism within the company.

In a statement on Twitter, Priceline replied to Mengistu's post. They said they're looking forward to talking to the women and regret the "circumstances" of the incident.

On October 5, a Priceline spokesperson sent the following statement to Revelist:

The situation that unfolded in our Highpoint store on September 17 is highly regrettable and we wholeheartedly apologize for the experience of the customers involved including Ms. Birhane.

Priceline does not condone nor engage in racial profiling. Bag checks are unfortunately necessary in retail and we will work to make all customers feel included by educating our teams to ensure this, and all other customer contact, is done openly and consistently. 

Priceline does, and will continue to, support all women from various different backgrounds and ages through our various sponsorships, ambassadors and charity partners.

We have tried to contact Ms. Birhane to discuss the situation (yesterday Australian time), our approach and apologize on behalf of everyone involved. We look forward to talking with her.

Mengistu said that she and her friends posted the letter online to show that they refuse to be taken advantage of by a large corporation.

"I hope people who read this know that you have more power than you think, don't let them bully you into submission in racist situations," Mengistu said.